Missed Accountability

Community college is a ship dead in the water.

Fortunately, California has legislated a solution to its two-year colleges’ collective failure at graduating their students satisfactorily, meaning in less time and in greater numbers:  Any college failing to improve its student outcomes and its services to what UC Berkeley Graduate Professor David Kirp considers, “poor students,”[1] will incur a 40 percent deduction in state funding as a penalty.

It is an astonishingly asinine piece of legislation, but one that faithfully accords to a lineage of similar fiats threatening economic ruin to schools failing to achieve well-intended—but predictably misapplied—academic standards. No Child Left Behind reduced learning to the selecting of a response from a litany of established choices, under prompts written with as much acquaintance to critical thinking as its  legislation’s authors and supporters were to effective pedagogy. These proponents, including those  authors, then-President George W. Bush and the late Ted Kennedy (D-MA), conflated quick assessment with effective learning. And then they enacted it into legislation, codifying it for nearly a decade, during which NCLB’s nearsightedness became clear, exposing evermore the federal government’s ineptitude addressing an institution it has no constitutional business interfering with, let alone governing, in the first place.

But now the community college is under a microscope after having enjoyed years of much-ado national attention, previously languishing since time immemorial in the ivory shadows of four-year institutions. Many junior college’s faculty and staff enjoy a loose belief that their particular academic bubble is recession-proof. The 12-month span between 2007 – 2008 surely validated it when two-year colleges suddenly were thrust into the role of savior for the U.S. economy. Thanks to then-President Obama’s tenure, education’s forgotten middle child finally could extol its open-admissions policies and its pragmatism. Two-year institutions sported their signature low costs, inviting atmosphere, and personal accessibility.

The public cheered.

Above all else, an in-demand degree took half the time to earn.

The public flocked. Enrollments flourished. It helps tremendously that community colleges are recession-proof. Allegedly, anyway.

But such virtues have failed in practice in California. Allegedly, anyhow.

Back to David Kirp. He responds to this punitive legislation nobly by outlining three undertakings each publicly-funded community college must accomplish, lest a considerable chunk of taxpayer-provided dollars vanishes to the ether, along with the education of a significant diaspora of predominantly in-state students:  creating momentum, fixing remedial education, and providing [students] a road map to graduation. Mr. Kirp is resigned to this punitive legislation, as everyone ought to be. But he is proactively responding to avoid its overreach, as everyone ought to be.

But more concerning than the prohibitive legislation is the conspicuous absence in Kirp’s commentary—and in other similar editorials—of student accountability, especially within the framework of the two primary goals pursuant to his state’s legislation:  improving student outcomes and services to the poor, both of which are the exclusive burdens of the college, ultimately settling largely on faculty who regularly serve as students’ first, and often most accessible, contact.

Make no mistake:  faculty commiserate frequently—and colorfully—about students needing to be held more consistently and proportionally accountable. Significantly so. Administration is firmly aware of this issue, but notwithstanding any consensus behind closed doors, its official policy is to further mire itself in the profitable-but-unsustainable business of remediating students’ college experience to a cut-rate extension of high school, operated by the mid-level managerial equivalent of a meddling mother. Many administrations embrace it because marketing what amounts to a welfare state spoils system translates to easy money. Add in a compromised curriculum for good measure, and—voila!—acquiring state funding is less problematic. But now a significant morale issue engulfs administration and faculty concerning the essence of the college. Conflicts metes out over the precarious balance between academic rigor and student retention that trumpets from either side of the same official mouthpiece. The latter of the two chiefly falls under administration’s purview while the former under faculty’s. What is commonly at odds goes beyond the discrepancy in the nuanced meanings of quantity and quality; it cuts to both camps’ philosophical differences, reducible to the reason for the permanent philosophical disconnect: the dearth of college-level teaching experience present among administrators and executives.[2]

It is difficult to imagine an educator-turned-administrator would green-light staff to interrupt in-session classes, pluck students currently unregistered for the following semester, and then literally walk them down to an academic advising office, where each student will sit and wait before observing representative register their classes for them. It is problematic to believe this reformed educator would contractually obligate faculty to cold-call potential students over dinner hour (of all times) to lure them to a campus that more of them will opt out of than express even tepid interest. (It does not help when caller ID devices list incoming college employee office calls as, “unlisted,” further invalidating this tone-deaf recruitment method.) And it be disingenuous of this new executive to pull on a faculty member’s heartstrings to coax her into overlooking a student’s poor academic standing, and then to permit some exception to that member’s course policy. There have occurred the same situations but involving outright direct insubordination of the teacher, ranging from obscenities to threats. But these are apparently the effects of poorly enacted student outcomes or half-baked attempts at helping poor students and stopping a half-step short of holding students’ hands throughout the majority of their first two years of adult independence is sound practice.

Indeed, what President of Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, Hank Dunn, testifies to the need for more student accountability rings true:  the college’s overemphasis on its own best practices to ensure student success does not empower students to change their behavior. Back to Dunn: “we came to the conclusion that indeed we were doing things ‘to’ a student and not fundamentally changing the students’ [sic] behavior.”[3] Squandered in this morass is any credibility among disingenuous faculty and pandering administrations in firmly and consistently holding students accountable for their choices in college.

Choice. Its positivity infuses policy rhetoric. Choice is student-centeredness. Choice means for students autonomy, control, and comfort—a trinity that every newly-minted 18-year-old demands. Choice is democratic. American, even. Choice is also marketable. Choice is savvy. But without equivocation, with that brand of choice should naturally come for each student absolute responsibility and accountability. A college’s function is to legislate these and adjudicate them within the same parameters as the choices it supplies students.

Accountability does exist in community colleges. All faculty, personnel, staff, and administration—the collective institution, from custodians to the president—is continuously accountable for student success. California’s legislature agrees. The general public agrees. Mr. Kirp agrees. I agree.

But that should not the point. It is a deflection—a shrewd, political sleight-of-hand that maintains the veneer of accountability while disguising its original intent. Such misdirection preserves the integrity of the college and surely cements votes for the state suits because these approaches imply that students need never fear repercussions proportionate (or at all) to the infraction, whether it is related to academics, athletics, or campus life. In my experiences, this implication converts to actuality once college is in session and students’ desire to play more than work goes unchecked.

Serious discourse on this issue lags compared to how California’s state legislature defines “accountability” that, like its equally ambiguous brethren “equality,” becomes a presumptuously misapplied, highly politicized term. Its intensity and significance ebbs and wanes with as much predictable inconsistency as the stock market. In most literature, accountability focuses predominantly on how colleges should be more culpable for student success, meaning mildly praised when it occurs or mercilessly condemned when it does not. What literature does spotlight student accountability often tins with either caricature-like sanctimony or unenlightened persuasion on students’ natural capability to self-motivate, prioritize, and assuredly conquer their futures with aplomb, when in actuality, few further truths can be had considering the vast majority, populated in large part by Kirp’s “poor students,” among others, typically fail to meet the entrance standards of four-year public institutions because they lacked proper accountability at crucial times in the not-so-distant past, and not because they are cognitively deficient, victims of discrimination, or bearers of bad luck.

“We must work with what we have.” This is a common refrain in a professional’s college tenure from all levels of administration toward a litany of perennial issues. In campus-wide welcome-back speeches, it is a preemptive reminder whose mild firmness hardens by mid-term’s separate division pep talks. Buried in the words lay that third-rail issue of student accountability, strewn thickly with ominous statistics on declining enrollments and state budget cuts, punctuated with renewed vigor on retaining students to combat increased tuition costs and declining job wages.

And what of academic rigor, of the college-level work naturally resulting from the menu of the many desirable, empowering choices marketed to attract and retain as many warm bodies as possible? It is there, I am sure, lurking in still waters, waiting for an act of Nature to steer it again toward relevance. But it might take an act of Congress to legislate it out of the headwinds of oblivion, replete with ruinous consequences for all.

[1] “California to community colleges:  graduate more students or lose your funding,” LA Times, 8/22/18, http://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-kirp-california-community-college-graduation-rates-20180822-story.html

[2] Educational administrative theory, a business acumen, or non-educational leadership experience qualify for executive or administrative positions in a type of college that markets its exclusive focus on best-practices instruction to exploit the most potential from students.

[3] “POV: Time to hold students accountable for their own success,” Community College Week, 3/18/2018, http://ccweek.com/article-3348-pov:-time-to-hold-students-accountable-for-their-own-success.html